“Everything happens for a reason” is a common saying I find particularly irritating. I admit, my annoyance with this particular axiom is, in part, due to it’s rampant popularity and general overuse. Putting aside my personal bias against philosophical cliches, this point-of-view is still troubling. The problem is, this fatalistic maxim deflects responsibility away from the individual, and into some nebulous abyss of “destiny”.
I understand this phrase is a knee-jerk response to personal difficulties. It is not intended to be employed as a dogmatic life credo, nor is it a consummate theological concept, subject to deconstructionist dismantling. One could even say it is a harmless aphorism people use for their own comfort. But I would venture to say this cute little adage is both theologically inaccurate and ethically corrosive.
The concept seems perfectly at home nestled into the theological framework of Calvinism. If you ascribe to such Calvinist doctrines as predestination, or irresistible grace, perhaps you can accept this saying without being inconsistent in your logic. My problem is, I believe these ideas are out of line with a profoundly gracious deity. If God is simply a giant micromanager in the sky, or some tragedian playwright using us as his thespians, then perhaps it is reasonable to say “everything happens for a reason” but for our sake, I hope that’s not the true nature of God.
The most pressing problem with this viewpoint is obvious. Would a loving God facilitate the murder of a child? The loss of limbs to meningitis? Torture in a POW camp? If God is perfect, and more-over perfectly good, which most major religions espouse, how could He make something atrocious happen? If you follow this concept to its logical conclusion, it would mean A) individuals who perpetuate terrible ethical infractions can’t be held responsible for their actions, and B) it’s “planned” for victims of such infractions to endure terrible pain and sorrow. While you could make a plausible argument the suffering party is predetermined to be positively shaped by this event (which is another debate altogether) I can see no reasonable way a loving, supremely benevolent being could write into his plan for one of His children to commit a mortifying act. This would make Him, at the very least, an accomplice to the evil act and therefore would render his “perfect goodness” null and void.
The typical response to this theological paradox is God allows bad things to happen but does not make them happen. If this is the case then we at least have some modicum of free will, because God is not guiding our actions toward one another, but simply allowing them to take place. Therefore, when a person commits a terrible act they are doing so by their own volition, and consequently are responsible for their actions. If you accept this premise, it inevitably debunks the idea that everything happens for a reason.
This brings me to another aspect I find troubling about this saying. It excuses people from laboring to improve their world. If everything, including violence, pain, illness, and misery is part of a grand plan, what is the motivation for a human being to intervene? The sociological implications are harrowing. Fatalism naturally decreases altruism, and altruism is the central message of Christianity.
Ultimately, my biggest criticism of the belief that everything happens for a reason, is it passes off our responsibility to be the living Body of Christ. It allows us to shift our duties back onto God, which is nothing short of a tragedy. I believe we have been empowered to be living vessels of radical compassion. We are called to use every ounce of our talent, creativity, and free-will to improve and enrich the lives of those around us. This is our greatest burden, and our greatest joy.
I don't think everything happens for a reason. We are the masters of our own destiny, and consciousness is our most precious rift. We are responsible for the suffering and misery in this world, but more importantly, we are responsible for it’s healing.